SPEAKING IN TONGUES
Hampstead Theatre, London NW3
Opened 8 June, 2000

Two adulterous couples arrive in two different hotel rooms side by side on the same stage. They each go through rituals of the "I've never done this before" sort, uttering banal and/or clumsy remarks. But they do it in unison: the two men utter their lines at the same moment, the two women reply as one. Occasionally little phrases slip out of sync, and gradually the situations diverge. Then we see the couples (who turn out each to be married to the person in the other hotel room, if you follow me) at home, admitting or not to what happened, also in near-unison. The location shifts to a bar, where the men find themselves drinking together; then to a club, where the women... indeed.

Australian writer Andrew Bovell believes that we must find new ways of saying things in theatre, and in Speaking In Tongues he has done so. This is more than a theatrical equivalent of the once-modish split-screen movie. Beginning with situations which seem mundanely identical, he gradually diffuses his piece so that we are enticed into building a collage of these people's lives from hearing their individual contributions. Some of them tell long solo stories à la Conor McPherson; one of these stories foretells the events among a quite different quartet of characters after the interval, when a woman goes missing; her distraught husband, in turn, is interviewed by a policeman who was one of the men in Part One. We do not balk at the wildly implausible chain of coincidence which links these nine people; the patterning of similarities, differences and connections has by now seduced us past the bright surface ripples to consider Bovell's portrayals of love, relationships and how we define ourselves in terms of others, or of The Other.

Niki Turner's design puts three huge reflecting screens upstage, onto which are projected "establishing shots" of locations, and in which we see the actors and ourselves repeated. Mark Clements has obtained admirably precise work from his quartet of actors (each doubling, or in one case tripling, roles) so that Bovell's synchronisations and alternations are instant-perfect without ever sacrificing actual characterisation. Katharine Rogers shines in the first half as the too-forthright Sonja; Nigel Le Vaillant comes into his own (and, indeed, his own accent) in Part Three as John, husband of the disappeared Valerie. In some respects, this shares the strategy of superficial dazzle masking a greater thoughtfulness below which characterised Bovell's script for Strictly Ballroom; it is a play and a production of shimmering, iridescent beauty, revealing the marvellous in the everyday.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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